From They’re a Weird Mob (1957)

The pharmacist-turned-novelist John O’Grady adopted the pseudonym of Giovanni ‘Nino’ Culotta to write the story of an immigrant Italian journalist who comes to Sydney and writes about the people – and their version of English – he finds there. Nino’s true identity was only revealed two months after publication. It became a hit film in 1966:

Most Australians speak English like I speak Hindustani, which I don’t. In general, they use English words, but in a way that makes no sense to anyone else. And they don’t use our European vowel sounds, so that even if they do construct a normal sentence, it doesn’t sound like one. This made it necessary for me, until I became accustomed to it, to translate everything that was said to me twice, first into English and then into Italian. So my replies were always slow, and those long pauses prompted many belligerent remarks, such as ‘Well don’t just stand there like a dill; d’yer wanta beer or dontcha?’

Nino is a Piedmontese who has several altercations with the Meridionali (southerners who made up the bulk of Italian immigrants) on the voyage to Australia:

…I saw Sydney for the first time the very best way – from the deck of a ship. And at the very best time – early in the morning, with the sun behind us. It was October, and the sun was beautiful. The Customs people were not, but the rest of our Meridionali had to be got ashore, and no doubt that accounted for them being irritable. My promise to the captain was no longer binding, so I said a few words. Which led to a nice little battle, which was ended by some Australian policemen. A big one, with silver stripes on his arm pointed to me. ‘You,’ he said, ‘come here.’

I hit one more of the Meridionali, and walked over to him.

‘You called me, sir?’ I said.

‘Where are your bags?’

‘Over there, sir.’

‘Get ’em.’

Two other policemen joined him, so I thought I’d better humour him. I got my bags and came back.

‘Come on,’ he said.

I followed them out, and they went to a taxi, and the big policeman opened the boot and put my bags inside. One of the others opened the door of the taxi, and stood by.

‘Excuse me, sir.’ I said. ‘Where do we go?’

He said, ‘Get in.’

I got in, and the one by the door shut it, and the big one said to the driver, ‘Get going.’ The driver started up and went up the street a little way, and then said, ‘Where to, mate?’

I said, in a very dignified manner, ‘It appears to me, sir, that since you are acting under the orders of the constabulary, you are undoubtedly well aware of our destination.’

He said, ‘Cut the bull. An’ don’ call me sir. Where yer wanner go?’

Some of this I understood, and it was surprising. ‘Do you not know?’ I said.

‘No,’ he said.




After a while, he said, ‘Well we can’t sit ‘ere all bloody day; where we goin’?’

I was silently translating what he said into what I thought he meant in an English I understood, and translating this into Italian, and working out my answer in Italian, to be translated into English, all of which was taking some time, when he suddenly seemed to become very irritable and said, ‘Gawd I’ve been drivin’ his bloody thing since one o’bloody clock this mornin’ an’ now it’s bloody near time for lunch an’ I ‘ave ter get landed with a bloody ning nong who doesn’t know where he’s bloody goin’. Will the Cross do yer?’

By the time I had worked out a few words of this speech, we had arrived somewhere, and he was getting my bags out of the boot. I got out also, and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but do you mind telling me where I now am?’

‘Kings Cross. Three bob.’

‘Excuse me, sir, but do you mind telling me where I now am?’

He shouted very loudly, ‘KINGS BLOODY CROSS!’

I said this to myself two or three times, and decided that it must be the name of a suburb. So I said, ‘Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why am I in Kings Bloody Cross?’

‘Because I bloody brought yer…three bob.’

‘I do not understand what you say, and I do not understand why I am where I am, but I thank you. Could you please inform me, please, where is some place where I may be able to obtain some food?’

‘Anywhere around here,’ he said. ‘Are yer gunna pay me the three bob or ain’t yer?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Look mate, I brought yer from the bloody dock, an’ you owe me three bob. Do I get ut or don’t I?’

I caught the word ‘Owe’ and said, ‘I am reminded of something. You have transported me to this place, and I would like you to inform me how much is my fare, please?’

He became very irate again, and said in a loud voice, ‘Strike me bloody ’andsome, I just told yer. Three bob.’

‘How much is the fare please?’

He said ‘Oh-h-h!’ and something I didn’t understand, then pushed his cap back, and scratched his head. Then he said, very slowly and distinctly, ‘Look mate, have-you-any-money?’

This was very good English, and I answered immediately, ‘Yes.’


Again I was able to answer immediately, and I was wishing he would always speak as clearly as this. I said, ‘Of course, I have three shillings.’

Then he seemed to acquire a great rage, and said, ‘Well bloody give ut to me before I call the bloody cops or do me block or some such bloody thing. Give us me three bob.’

He was holding out his hand, so I assumed he wanted three shillings. I gave him three shillings. He said, ‘Any man takes this game on’s not right in the nut.’ He got into his taxi and drove away without even saying thank you.

-‘Nino Culotta’ (John O’Grady), Australian, 1907-1981

From A Complete Dagg (1989)

New Zealand-born comedian John Clarke’s character ‘Fred Dagg’ was a ‘Freelance Expert in matters of a general character’ on Sydney radio and television in the 1970s and 80s. Clarke wrote a series of satirical pieces on Australian politics for the Sydney Sun-Herald under the title ‘Damon’s Beat’, in the style of Guys and Dolls creator Damon Runyon. Here he meets newly-elected New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner, but interstate and Federal politics in both major parties intrudes:


I am sitting near the window of Mindy’s the other night watching a great deal of rain crashing down into the street and a number of citizens rushing about the place with their collars turned up and their shoes slapping the deck like penguins.

Many guys come through the door and shake themselves and bang their hats on their knees and complain bitterly about the depressing character of the conditions. Several very eye-catching dolls blow in too, although the weather is by no means likely to be the main problem for a doll who walks into Mindy’s.

I am shooting the breeze with a somewhat microscopic dude named Excitable Greiner, who recently replaces Personality Unsworth as the head of certain very extensive local operations. Excitable Greiner has a huge smile on his kisser and is fighting the urge to thank people for their support although the idea of supporting Excitable Greiner never occurs to anyone except perhaps as the down-side of removing Personality Unsworth.

In fact if Excitable Greiner ever finds anything out about the operations for which he is now responsible he will be very annoyed about the overwhelming support he receives from a grateful public and he will wish to be many miles away and possibly on another planet.

As Excitable Greiner and I are sitting there, speaking of one thing and another, we observe a very lean-looking greyhound standing on the back of a truck. In fact it appears the truck’s engine breaks down as Thick Mick has parts of it all over the road and is tossing a coin.

The pooch seems somewhat familiar to me and once I see it move I realise that it is none other than Bannon’s Pride, the favourite for the Big Race which is being run at this time in another part of town and of course this is a most surprising realisation in every respect. Naturally I say nothing to Excitable Greiner about these matters as he is apt to be greatly alarmed if he hears the result of the contest while looking out the window at the winner standing on the back of a truck.

In fact it is a long time since anyone can recall such a short-priced favourite as Bannon’s Pride and for some time I personally suspect the result is somewhat fixed as Little Bob places a G with Burke the Bookie and it is a well known fact that Little Bob does not place Gs with people unless he hears something very convincing.

Of course Burke the Bookie has no trouble laying this bet as he is on the Hospitals Committee and the Schools Committee and is able to free up some of their potatoes if his buddies experience short-term difficulties such as being cleaned out in the crash or getting the result wrong at the races.

Cartoon by Jenny Coopes in 'A Complete Dagg', 1989 (Allen and Unwin)

Cartoon by Jenny Coopes in ‘A Complete Dagg’, 1989 (Allen and Unwin)

The situation is becoming very complex and I consider taking a little night air of a type found some distance from here, but events commence to worsen with the arrival of John the Nose, who is somewhat prominent in the brewing line and who has a worried look on his pan. ‘Good evening, Excitable,’ he says. ‘I wonder if you can assist me. I have Landslide Howard in the car and he requires urgent medical attention.’

‘Thank you for your support,’ says Excitable Greiner. ‘I am distressed to hear of this occurrence as I have nothing but admiration for Landslide Howard.’

‘Landslide and I attend a conference together and I am afraid Landslide sustains a number of cuts and abrasions,’ says John the Nose.

‘I trust no-one else is hurt,’ says Excitable Greiner.

‘There is some limited structural damage to the venue,’ says John the Nose, ‘although happily no one else gets a number of slugs in the thigh while addressing the meeting on law and order.’

‘Goodness me!’ says Excitable Greiner. ‘How can I help poor Landslide?’

‘I do not recall asking you to help Landslide,’ says John the Nose. ‘I want you to help me. We must tie some rocks to Landslide’s very attractive suit and you must hide this Roscoe,’ and he pulls out his persuader and slides it across to Excitable Greiner as he speaks. ‘I also require another vehicle and a good alibi in case the authorities fail to see the merit of my involvement.’

It is at this point that Excitable Greiner reveals that he is by no means the sap he looks. ‘Thank you for your support,’ he says. Two hours later Thick Mick is apprehended carrying the body of Landslide Howard towards the docks and John the Nose is nabbed trying to drive through a police cordon with the winner of Race 5 on the back of a truck.

-John Clarke, New Zealander-Australian, 1948-2017

From The Harp in the South (1948)

Ruth Park based the Darcy family of Surry Hills on that of her husband D’Arcy Niland:

In this narrow-gutted, dirty, old house, squeezed with its elbows flat against its sides between two others, there lived seven people. There was Mr Diamond, the Orangeman, and Hughie Darcy and his wife. Also there was Dolour Darcy, who was sixteen, and her elder sister Roie, who lived in one of the attic rooms with her husband, Charlie Rothe, and their little girl, Moira, who called herself Motty. There had been two others – Thady, who had been born between Roie and Dolour, and who was stolen off the street when he was six and never seen again; and Grandma, dead a long time now, and yet curiously a part of their daily life, a shuffling little ghost, pungent as a whiff of pipe smoke, and Irish as the words that were all she had to leave them.

The Irish in these people was like an old song, remembered only by the blood that ran deep and melancholy in veins for two generations Australian. The great tree, kernelled in the rich dust of Patrick and Columbanus, Finn and Brian, and Sheena of the unforgotten hair – the tree whose boughs had torn aside the mist of Ultima Thule bore in this sun-drowned southern land leaves in which the sap welled sharp, sweet, as any on Galway quay, or the market at Moneymore. The great music that had clanged across the world, of lion voice of missionary, of sword and stylus; the music that spoke aloud in the insurrections, in the holds where the emigrants sweltered in vermin and hunger – this music was heard in Plymouth Street, Surry Hills, and was unrecognized…

St. Peter's Church, 237 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. c. 1990. (City of Sydney Archives)

St. Peter’s Church, 237 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. c. 1990. (City of Sydney Archives)

Only in the little girl, Dolour, lying on her stomach and picking her face before a yellow corner of looking-glass, was the fierce positivity of the Celt, a surging energy that made her long for the world she did not know, for thoughts she could not yet comprehend, for experience she could not yet encompass. In her was the infinite delicacy of feeling of the Irish, the very halt of the raindrop before it rolls down the stem, the spin of light on the knife-blade, the tremble of the wind harp’s string as the blown air touches. She was on the threshold of articulateness, and did not know it.

All the discomforts, the vulgarities, the harsh jovialities of her little world broke against her as repeatedly and unavailingly as a wave breaks against a rock; her real life was in school, and in the church.

The church in Surry Hills was no fountain of stone, no breaking wave of granite like some of the great cathedrals. It was foursquare, red brick, with a stubby steeple as strictly functional as the finger of a traffic cop; it humped its sturdy shoulder into the schoolyard, and the children rewarded it by bouncing balls off it.

It was as much a part of Surry Hills life as the picture-show or the police station, the ham-and-beef or the sly-grog shop. Its warm brick wall was there in winter for the old men to sun themselves against, or for the feeble-footed drunk, staggering home in the dim, to lie beside. Its steps were seats for the old ladies who’d walked too far with their marketing and them with their feet brittle as biscuits with the rheumatism. The church in Surry Hills had achieved the innermost meaning of Christianity; it was the commonplace of life, like a well-loved old coat, worn, ordinary, sometimes a little drab but essential to living.

On Sunday Father Cooley mounted the pulpit, rather slowly, for he had lumbago. He stared full into the eye of the microphone they had installed while he’d been sick, and contemptuously clouted the thing aside. He’d always been able to blast the ears off the backbenches, and he had no intention of giving way to new-fangled inventions at his time of life.

‘We’re going to have a mission,’ he said.

–Ruth Park, New Zealand-Australian, b. 1917-2010

From Kangaroo (1923)

D. H. Lawrence visited Australia in 1922, staying for a time at Thirroul, south of Sydney:

The train ran for a long time through Sydney, or the endless outsides of Sydney. The town took almost as much leaving as London does. But it was different. Instead of solid rows of houses, solid streets like London, it was mostly innumerable detached bungalows and cottages, spreading for great distances, scattering over hills, low hills and shallow inclines. And then waste marshy places, and old iron, and abortive corrugated iron “works” – all like the Last Day of Creation, instead of a new country. Away to the left they saw the shallow waters of the big opening where Botany Bay is: the sandy shores, the factory chimneys, the lonely places where it is still Bush. And the weary half established straggling of more suburb.

Como” said the station sign. And they ran on bridges over two arms of water from the sea, and they saw what looked like a long lake with wooded shores and bungalows: a bit like Lake Como, but oh, so unlike. That curious sombreness of Australia, the sense of oldness, with all the forms worn down low and blunt, squat. The squat-seeming earth. And then they ran at last into real country – rather rocky, dark old rocks, and sombre bush with its different, pale-stemmed, dull-leaved gum-trees standing graceful, and various healthy-looking undergrowth, and great spiky things like yuccas…


The Travellers by Gary Shead, 1996 (Savill Galleries)

The Travellers by Gary Shead, 1996 (Savill Galleries)

“Your wonderful Australia!” said Harriett to Jack. “I can’t tell you how it moves me. It feels as if no-one had ever loved it. Do you know what I mean? England and Germany and Italy and Egypt and India – they’ve all been loved so passionately. But Australia feels as if it had never been loved, and never come out into the open. As if man had never loved it, and made it a happy country, a bride country – or a mother country.”

“I don’t suppose they ever have,” said Jack.

“But they will?” asked Harriett. “Surely they will. I feel if I was Australian, I should love the very earth of it – they very sand and dryness of it – more than anything.”

–D.H. Lawrence, English, 1885-1930

from Emerald City (1987)

Like his creator, Colin is a Melbourne writer who has moved to Sydney:

COLIN stands by a window, gazing out. He is a handsome, engaging man in his late thirties whose natural disposition is warm and open, though when he feels uncertain or under attack, he’s capable of an aloof, almost arrogant air and of sharp retaliation. He is watched by ELAINE ROSS, a shrewd capable woman in her fifties.

COLIN: [turning away from the window] What other city in the world could offer a view like this?
ELAINE: Rio. But I’m prepared to believe it’s the second most beautiful city in the world.
COLIN: I used to come here when I was a kid and go back with my head full of images of lushness. Green leaves spilling over sandstone walls, blue water lapping at the sides of ferries. Flame trees, Jacaranda, heavy rain, bright sun.
ELAINE: [drily] Yes, there’s no lack of colour.
COLIN: Everything in Melbourne is flat, grey, parched and angular. And everything is controlled and moderate. It never rains in buckets like it does here in Sydney, it drizzles. The wind never gusts, it creeps along the streets like a wizened old mugger and slips a blade into your kidneys. Sydney has always felt like a city of sub-tropical abundance.
ELAINE: Abundance. [Nodding] Yes. There’s abundance. Sometimes I’m not sure of what.
COLIN: There’s a hint of decadence too, but to someone from the puritan south, even that’s appealing.
ELAINE: I didn’t drag you up here, then?
COLIN: No, I would’ve come years ago, but I couldn’t persuade Kate. She’s convinced Sydney is full of con men, crooks and hustlers.
ELAINE: She’s right.
COLIN: Melbourne has its quota of shysters.
ELAINE: Sydney is different. Money is more important here.
COLIN: Why more so than Melbourne?
ELAINE: To edge yourself closer to a view. In Melbourne all views are equally depressing, so there’s no point.
COLIN: [laughing] I’m not convinced.
ELAINE: It’s true. No one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life – it’s getting yourself a water frontage. People devote a lifetime to the quest. You’ve come to a city that knows what it’s about, so be warned. The only ethic is that there are no ethics, loyalties rearrange themselves daily, treachery is called acumen and honest men are called fools.
COLIN: I thought you liked the place?
ELAINE: I do. It’s my city and I accept it for what it is. Just don’t behave as if you’re still in Melbourne, because if you do you’ll get done like a dinner.
[ELAINE exits. COLIN moves thoughtfully to centre stage. KATE walks on. She’s COLIN’s wife. An attractive, vivacious and intelligent woman in her thirties. Her frowning earnestness often makes her funny when she’s not trying to be.]
COLIN: This is an amazing city.
KATE: [bluntly] I hate it.
COLIN: [suddenly angry] Christ, Kate! If you’re going to be this negative right from the start, let’s just cancel everything and go back south.
KATE: We can’t. You insulted everybody as soon as you knew we were going.
COLIN: It’s a stunning city, Kate. You should see the view that Elaine’s got.
KATE: To judge a city by the views it offers is the height of superficiality. This city is dreadful. The afternoon paper had three words on the cover: ‘Eel Gets Chop’, and no matter how much I juggle that around in my mind I can’t find a meaning that justifies the whole front page of a newspaper.

–David Williamson, Australian, b. 1942

People yachting on Sydney Harbour, New South Wales, 1987 (National Archives of Australia)

People yachting on Sydney Harbour, New South Wales, 1987 (National Archives of Australia)

From Water Under the Bridge (1977)

Having seen the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, gone abroad and become a successful actor, Neil Atkins returns in 1973 for the opening of the Sydney Opera House:

When the big 747 began its descent over North Head the first-class passengers on the port side had a magnificent view of the harbor and the first thing Neil spotted was a glinting pearl on the edge of Circular Quay, even at such a distance the nacre sails seemed to be blowing across the bay.

“Look, you can see the Opera House.” He pointed.

But Prudence looked the wrong way, in a second it was gone and they were over some suburbs, she was blinking downwards, perplexed.

“No, you missed it,” he said.

And Susan was fiddling with the nauseating bag she had bought in Nandi, Fiji, in the duty-free shop. None of them had had much sleep on the long hop from Honolulu, their tongues felt sandy.

“– return your seats to the upright position and kindly observe the no smoking sign,” the impersonal voice said on the speaker.

“I hope there won’t be an avalanche of press,” Prue said. She hated the press, she always came out “terribly” in the pictures. But she had given up a promising career in British films when she married Neil, he imagined she sometimes felt resentful.

But of course the press would be there because Finch was on the plane and Finch was the star of the picture they’d come out to make, Neil was very second-fiddle to Finch.

They could pick out streets now, some unlovely suburb, outlying Mascot probably, and he felt a jab of recognition at Victorian houses with curving tin overhangs.

Twenty-three years and two months. He was washed with nostalgia and terror. He jabbed his pipe in his mouth.

“You can’t light that now.”

I know.”

Prudence had never wanted to come, she’d wanted him to take the Disney thing, but he’d said he wanted to see Aussie just once more. There were people from the past.

Mr. Atkins? Welcome home. I’m thingummy from De Laurentiis-Cinesound. Have a good trip? Might I have your passports, get you through immigration in a jiffy. Wonder if we might just get a couple of pictures. This your first trip home? Twenty-three, eh? You are a stranger.

Click. Flash.

One bored reporter (twenty around Finch). “Um, do you consider yourself a deserter?”

“No. Surprised if I’d been missed.”

“Um, how’s it feel to be home?”

“Home is London. This is back. It’s fine to be back.”

You’re no star, said the reporter’s look.

Would have been sucking at the breast about the time Neil had left.

Outside, the peppery smell of eucalyptus and hard sunlight, Australia.

And everything coming back in a rush, streaming past the limousine windows, flowing over him, little brick suburban houses, paling fences, pubs on the corners, doors open to the dark coolnesses, and men in shirtsleeves, KB lager, Resch’s Pilsener, Toohey’s ale, Kinkara tea, the clock tower on Central Station, and tiled Mark Foy’s flowing past him, the past was vestigial, the present alarming in steel and towering glass, they flew through whole blocks as foreign to him as Oslo. BOAC, PAN AM, IBM and past old Woolloomooloo where there was now a throughway to the Cross, suddenly burst into Macleay Street, eerily preserved, the Art Deco of the Macleay Regis Apartments and for a cruel second he caught in a flash Rockwall Crescent, one side torn down but Shasta’s house still there, his old gate, a cat stalking past.

“And this,” the driver says, “is our El Alamein fountain.” The fountain rather ugly, a dandelion puff, and Prudence says in an undertone, “Already I don’t like it. What common buildings and so American looking.”

But they are puffed up, importance is bestowed on him at the Town House and there through the windows is the harbor with the Saturday regatta, spinnakers of all colors, butterflies against the sea blue and white blue of sky, grim old Fort Pinchgut still stood. They couldn’t ruin everything with plexiglass horror. Below him were enclaves of white Edwardian houses.

“No peace,” Prudence was sighing, “for the exhausted traveller, they’re not going to give us a moment to lay down our heads,” as the telephone rang.

And there was a small sheaf of messages. One said would he call Maggie McGhee at the Australian Womens Weekly. Another said would he at his convenience telephone Lady Rippon.

Who in hell was Lady Rippon?

–Sumner Locke Elliott, Australian, 1917-1991

Cartoon for Sydney Morning Herald by George Molnar (1910-1998) of El Alamein Fountain, Fitzroy Gardens, Kings Cross, designed by Woodward & Taranto, 1962. (National Library of Australia)

Cartoon for Sydney Morning Herald by George Molnar (1910-1998) of
El Alamein Fountain, Fitzroy Gardens, Kings Cross, designed by Woodward & Taranto, 1962. (National Library of Australia)

From The Family at Misrule (1895)

In the sequel to Ethel Turner‘s Seven Little Australians, the Woolcot family is seen five years later at their house, Misrule, ‘some distance up the Parramatta River’. The stepmother Esther has to deal with her own child – also called Esther – during February’s heat and humidity:

The next day was exceedingly hot, one of those moist, breathless days that make February the most unpleasant month in the year to Sydney folks.

Every one in the house felt utterly limp and cross and miserable, and daily duties were performed in as slipshod and languid a manner as possible. The cook had made a great pan of quince jam, and brought it into the breakfast-room on a tray for Esther to tie down. And Esther was sitting in the rocking-chair trying to make up her mind to do it, and wondering whether it would be easier to use string or paste. Small Esther was making a terrible noise. She owned dolls and bricks, little tea-services, and baby furniture – all the toys that well-regulated little girls are supposed to love; she generally tired of them, however, after a few minutes’ play.

At present she had made a tram of six heavy leather chairs, with the armchair for “motor”, and her little sweet face was scarlet and wet with the exertion of dragging them into place.

In addition to this she had taken the fire-irons out of the fender, and was rowing, or in some way propelling the train forward – to her own satisfaction, at any rate – by brandishing the tongs wildly about while she stood in the motor and shouted and cried, “Gee up!”

“Essie,” big Esther said at last, “you must be quiet. Poor mamma’s head aches. Where’s your doll? That’s not a pretty game.”

“All bwoked,” said Essie; “gee up, old twain.” Bang, bang, clatter, clatter.

“Essie, put those things away at once.” Esther noticed the poker for the first time. “You naughty girl, you are scratching the chairs dreadfully.”

“But I can’t make ze twain puff-puff wifout,” objected the engine-driver, “an’ we has to go to Bwisbane; det up wif you.” She leaned over the tall back of her locomotive, and made vigorous hits at the legs of it.

So vigorous indeed that the chair went over with a crash, precipitating Essie and the poker and tongs and shovel in four different directions.

“Oh dear,” said Esther, and sighed before she attempted to go to the rescue. Essie was always tumbling from somewhere or other and never got much hurt, and really it was terribly hot.

Ethel Turner, Australian, 1872-1958

J. Roarty & Son, Tennis tournament at Maramanah House, 64 Macleay Street, Potts Point (now Fitzroy Gardens), 1 January 1891. City of Sydney Archives

J. Roarty & Son, Tennis tournament at Maramanah House, 64 Macleay Street, Potts Point (now Fitzroy Gardens), 1 January 1891.
(City of Sydney Archives)

From Here’s Luck (1930)

‘It is absolutely ridiculous to call a man of forty-eight old,’ declares Jack Gudgeon at the beginning of Lennie Lower‘s comic novel Here’s Luck. Abandoned by his wife Agatha – her sister Gertrude has called him a ‘dipsomaniac’ – he bravely tries to fend for himself. Agatha has gone to her mother’s in Chatswood:

Chatswood is one of those places that are a stone’s throw from some other place, and is mainly given over to the earnestly genteel. Here, respectability stalks abroad adorned with starched linen and surrounded by mortgages. The clatter of lawn-mowers can be heard for miles on any sunny Saturday. Sunday evenings, the stillness of death descends on the place, but if one listens very attentively one may hear the scraping of hundreds of chewed pens as they travel the weary road of principal and interest and pay-off-as-rent.

Agatha’s mother’s home tucked its lawns about its feet and withdrew somewhat from the regular line of houses in the street. It had been paid for. My mother-in-law’s chief occupations were writing letters of complaint to the municipal council, and calling upon God to look at our so-called democratic government and blight it. She also laid a few baits for the neighbours’ dogs, kept a strict eye on the morals of the whole street, and lopped off any branch, twig or tendril which thrust itself from the next-door garden over the fence and so trespassed on her property. What spare time she had left was used up by various communings with God about the water-rates, and the only really light work she indulged in was when she seated herself behind the window-curtain and watched for small boys who might be tempted to rattle sticks along the front fence. Altogether, she was a busy woman…In this description of my mother-in-law’s mode of life I think I have written with a certain amount of tolerant restraint. She is an old lady and the age of chivalry is not dead while a Gudgeon lives. Perhaps a different son-in-law might have described her as a senseless, whining, nagging, leather-faced old whitlow not fit to cohabit with a rhinoceros beetle. But I wouldn’t.

–Lennie Lower, Australian, 1903-1947

McLeod and Smith, 2nd Chatswood Scout Hall, opening, 1929 (Willoughby City Library)

McLeod and Smith, 2nd Chatswood Scout Hall, opening, 1929
(Willoughby City Library)

From Redback (1986)

Karl Leon Forelock, native of Partington, Manchester (the wettest spot in Europe) comes to Australia in the early 1960s after graduating with a double-starred first in the Moral Decencies from Malapert College, Cambridge. (His creator, Howard Jacobson, was also a Mancunian Cambridge graduate who came to Australia in the 1960s.) Leon’s job is to teach Australians how to live, and this includes writing for the CIA-funded Black Sail. He is soon living in a ménage a trois with a pair of synchronised swimmers. He also catches up with his father, who ran away to Australia with his lover Trilby a decade before. They have made a fortune running a chain of upmarket fashion boutiques and are now living in Vaucluse:

‘Let me show you something,’ he said, leading me up marble steps to the highest point of what Trilby called the property, a tiny turreted folly which Trilby called her belvedere. ‘Look around you. See all those boats in the marinas, see all those fine houses and gardens, see those tennis courts, those swimming pools, those Roman verandas, those garages big enough to hold five cars – how many do you think are owned by Europeans who came here so recently they are still struggling with the language?’

…‘I suppose lots,’ I said.

‘You suppose right. Lots. And do you know what happens to a suburb like this when Boris Rubaschkin or Galina Vishnevskaya comes to sing at the Sydney Town Hall?’

I was astonished that my father had heard of such people let alone was capable of pronouncing their names. Then I remembered the opera-scarf he had worn, even for breakfast, during his last days in Partington. It was the opera scarf that had finally turned Hester and Nesta against him.

‘Well I suppose it empties,’ I guessed.

‘It empties for the night of the concert. But what does it do for a fortnight afterwards?’

He had me there. But I gave it a go. ‘It sings Russian songs?’

My father still had hold of my wrist and he tightened his grip on it. ‘It throbs, Leon. Living in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney for a month after a recital of songs from the old country is like living inside a giant cello. There are some streets in which you can feel the pavement vibrating with the emotion beneath you. This is a sentimental country. Everybody is a long way from home. There are pools winners here, Leon, lottery winners, refugees, runaways, people who have come thirteen thousand miles bent double in the boot of a motor car with their fortunes hidden in protective wrappings in their small intestine. They have risked everything to get here. This is the fulfilment of their dreams’ – I could tell he was speaking from the heart – ‘and still they cry. Sometimes I’ve stood on this very spot, here, where you and I are standing now, and I’ve heard the sobs of grown men and women from as far away as Perth and Adelaide. The whole country shakes nightly; but in Vaucluse, after a recital of folk-songs in the Sydney Town Hall, feeling is so strong it registers on a seismograph.’

I stood by his side and listened with him to the night. I tried to hear beyond the merely haphazard noises of the harbour, the clinking of the boats, the lapping of the water, the irritable coughing of the mermaids. And at last, even though there hadn’t been a recital from a Russian baritone for months, I made out the low moaning threnody of fourteen million souls in exile.

‘So don’t ask me,’ my father concluded, ‘if I’m homesick.’

–Howard Jacobson, English, b. 1942

Sydney Town Hall Organ (City of Sydney Archives)

Sydney Town Hall Organ (City of Sydney Archives)